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State of K-State: Basketball

I didn’t write up a season preview of the men’s basketball team, so I have no predictions or expectations from which to work.  However, we need only take a look at where this basketball program has been the past four seasons to get an idea of how much progress we’ve made.

2003-04: 14-13 (6-10 Big 12), no postseason
2004-05: 17-12 (6-10 Big 12), no postseason
2005-06: 15-13 (6-10 Big 12), no postseason
2006-07: 22-12 (10-6 Big 12), NIT (second round)

Just for comparison sake, the final numbers for this season were 21-12 (10-6 Big 12), and a second-round exit from the NCAA Tournament.  That 10-6 league record was also amassed against a much stronger field of conference teams, as 10-6 this year was good for solo possession of third place, whereas last year the 10-6 record grabbed the Cats a four-seed in Oklahoma City.

Any discussion of this season would be incomplete without mentioning the milestones accomplished.  In chronological order first, of course, was the end of the 24-year chicken hex in Bramlage.  Second, the first NCAA Tournament bid for K-State since 1996.  Third, the first NCAA Tournament win for K-State since 1988.

Those are all significant milestones for a program.  The Bramlage streak was not snapped in a down year for the ‘beakers; to the contrary, they were 20-0 coming into that game and we all know how the NCAA Tournament turned out for them.  The other two milestones require no further amplification, as they represent progress toward getting K-State basketball back into the national consciousness.

Finally, note that all this was accomplished with a rookie head coach.  Not just a newcomer to major-conference head coaching, a newcomer to head-coaching at any level of college basketball.  Never underestimate how much Frank Martin had to adjust to this year, and for the most part he acquitted himself fairly well.  Also, the results were accomplished with a team loaded with freshmen adjusting to their first year of Big 12-level basketball.  Among the nine players who led K-State in minutes played, five were freshmen, and one more (Andre Gilbert) was a junior college transfer.

If all this sounds like I’m trying to justify the accomplishments of the team this year, I suppose that’s a fairly accurate statement.  The X-factor all year long, with expectations as well as actual performance, was the presence of Michael Beasley and, to a slightly lesser extent, Bill Walker.  Beasley is such an exceptional player that it’s hard not to lose sight of reasonable expectations when he’s around.  While he is the type of player who can carry his team to a win in certain games, he is still one player.  In college basketball on the level it’s played in the Big 12, one player is not enough.  He can certainly be a key ingredient, but he can’t win games by himself.

Should we have expected improvement with a player like Beasley and a healthy Walker in the mix?  Absolutely, and by any rational, objective measure, we got it.  We went to the NCAA Tournament, as opposed to last year’s NIT bid, we improved our league finish over last year, and we won an NCAA Tournament game, which has to be considered an improvement from a single NIT win last year.  Sure, sometimes a group of freshmen come together for a magical March run, but that’s the exception (and it was accomplished with a much more experienced coach).

Overall, this season was a tremendous success.  Sure, the non-conference season was disappointing, and the second half of the league schedule left something to be desired, but if you look at the big picture, it was a very good year.  We are now a highly competitive team within the Big 12, having garnered first-round byes at the conference tournament the past two years, and are starting to reassert ourselves into the national conversation.

Now it’s time to look ahead.  At this point, it’s not easy to project what is to come.  Beasley is gone, as everyone expected.  Walker is testing the waters, but I still consider his decision an open question.  He has to balance the risk of being drafted in the second round and having no guaranteed money with the risk of coming back to school and getting hurt again.

We also lose two players, Clent Stewart and Blake Young, who contributed a lot in their years in Manhattan.  Stewart brought steady play to the point guard spot, while nobody beat Young to a loose ball without a fight.  Their relatively small but fairly consistent production will clearly be missed, and I thank them both for being Wildcats.

That leaves us with what we have left.  With Beasley and possibly Walker gone, and David Hoskins’ status still up in the air, we have some scholarships to use.  The first has gone to Hutch CC center Abdul Herrera.  It appears Buchi Awaji is a prime target, and I’m hearing Isaac Sosa, a sweet-shooting guard from Miami,  may be on the list as well.

Our likely starting lineup next year includes Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen in the backcourt, with Dominique Sutton, Jamar Samuels and Ron Anderson in the frontcourt.  Everyone and their dog has been wondering where we’ll get scoring next year, but I’m not interested in looking at scoring averages and saying "holy cow, we’re only going to score 35 points per game next year based on this!"  That’s not how it works.  As I mentioned in the previous post, if Beasley and Walker leave, 30 shots per game open up for other players to take, and while they may not make as many of those shots as Beasley and Walker did, I don’t foresee a huge dropoff from this year’s 78.0 points per game average.  Insane, you say?  Maybe not.  With the smaller lineup we will see next year coupled with the extremely athletic nature of the entire starting lineup, I foresee a much faster tempo, which will mean more possessions, more shots and, we can hope, more points.

Another year gone by also gives Frank Martin, Dalonte Hill and the rest of the coaching staff time to reflect on what was done well and what was done poorly this year.  Martin showed an ability to adjust to some mistakes he had made.  The most obvious example was his adjustment to substituting Beasley offense-for-defense in the first half of games in which Beasley picked up two fouls.  It undoubtedly contributed to K-State wins in at least two games this year, namely Texas A&M and USC.  

There was also a lot of noise made about how Martin made adjustments to the practice itinerary prior to the NCAA Tournament in response to the disappointing play down the stretch of the regular season and at the Big 12 tournament--although that loss to A&M really wasn’t anything to hang our heads in shame over.  When things were going well, for example the first five games of the conference schedule, the team looked smooth on offense, running actual half-court sets, playing solid defense, and rebounding like a bunch of Dennis Rodmans.  In my opinion, Martin showed he knows his basketball and is nowhere near the worst gameday coach in the Big 12, as some have suggested.  Just this season, he got the best of coaches such as Jeff Capel, Mark Turgeon and Bill Self.

That’s not to say I don’t have my questions and concerns heading into next season.  We need to see much more consistent production than we saw this year.  I think we can forecast another difficult non-conference slate, and the attendant early-season struggles we saw this year as the team will be breaking in several new players again.  It would also be nice to see better play on the road.  Maybe when we make road trips, Martin needs to pull a Gene Hackman from Hoosiers and measure the court for his players to convince them it’s the same dimensions as our gym in Manhattan.

One other thing I would like to see is a less-is-more approach to substitutions from Martin.  Too many times this year in games that weren’t going well, it seemed like Martin started throwing players into the game in an attempt to find a combination that worked.  While I recognize that in come instances an individual player may be having an off-night for whatever reason and just needs to sit, I tend to believe it’s better to let your best players fight through a rough stretch on the court.  It’s the same thing as a good shooter in a slump, he’s more likely to snap out of the funk on the court than he is on the bench.

To see if I was even close on this belief, I decided to look at our best and worst games this year.  For the best games, I chose our wins over Cal, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, KU, and USC.  For our worst games, I chose our losses to Xavier, Mizzou, Texas Tech, Nebraska, Texas and Wisconsin.  

Interestingly, in all of the best wins (five games), exactly seven players were on the court for double-digit minutes in each game.  In the bad losses (six games), twice there were seven players who saw double-digit minutes (Mizzou and Nebraska), three times there were eight players who saw double-digit minutes (Xavier, Tech, Texas), and once there were nine players who saw double-digit minutes (Wisconsin).  

Although the numbers are far from conclusive, it does appear we played better when fewer players saw more minutes.  You can almost eliminate the Nebraska game, also, because we likely would have won that game if Bill Walker would have been in the game down the stretch.

Anyway, like I said, not an overall indictment of Martin as a coach, but one area I think should be looked at.  Individually, I’d like to see Jacob Pullen develop into a sharpshooter from the outside, I’d like to see Dominique Sutton develop an offensive game outside of layups and dunks (he clearly has it, but just wasn’t comfortable because he’s only been out there since December), I’d like to see just how fast Denis Clemente really is (my friend from The U tells me he’s a blur), I’d like to see Andre Gilbert become a threat off the dribble and pulling up, I’d like to see Ron Anderson develop some solid low post moves and put on some weight, and I want to see Jamar Samuels t-bag someone on a dunk from outside the block.

Is that so much to ask?  It’s far too early to get into expectations for next year (unless you’re a Sooners fan, apparently), but as we move into the down time during the summer, BOTC will be keeping an eye on that.  Congrats to this year’s team, good luck to the seniors, Michael Beasley, and Bill Walker if he leaves, and thanks for all the hard work you put into wearing that jersey with "K-State" across the front.

We’ll Carry the Banner High!